One of the most important virtues to consider, to my mind, is what Bertrand Russell called “zest.” Zest, in Russell’s terms, is the healthy enjoyment of worldly pleasures. He explains it as follows:
Suppose one man likes strawberries and another does not; in what respect is the latter superior? There is no abstract and impersonal proof either that strawberries are good or that they are not good. To the man who likes them they are good, to the man who dislikes them they are not. But the man who likes them has a pleasure which the other does not have; to that extent his life is more enjoyable and he is better adapted to the world in which both must live. What is true in this trivial instance is equally true in more important matters. The man who enjoys watching football is to that extent superior to the man who does not. The man who enjoys reading is still more superior to the man who does not, since opportunities for reading are more frequent than opportunities for watching football. (Russell did not live to see ESPN.) The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has and the less he is at the mercy of fate, since if he loses one thing he can fall back upon another. Life is too short to be interested in everything, but it is good to be interested in as many things as are necessary to fill our days. (Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, pp. 125-6)
Zest in this sense, I think, is and should be a controversial virtue. There are many lists of virtues in which it does not appear. For Aristotle and the medieval tradition that follows him, the virtue with respect to pleasure and pain is temperance (sophrosyne), which is quite a different thing – more about moderation and controlling desires, “nothing in excess.” Comte-Sponville adds gratitude, which is related to zest (and probably just as pleasurable) but also not the same thing.
This isn’t just a matter of forgetting to include zest on the list, at least in Aristotle’s case. Zest is a potentially problematic virtue. For most Buddhists, indeed, zest looks positively vicious. Zest is exactly the problem; zest is taking pleasure in the impermanent things of the world, which reveal themselves ultimately to be nothing but suffering. We may take some pleasure in our efforts to get out of worldly things – or even in giving others worldly pleasures, in Mahāyāna tradition – but ultimately, zest is something we need to fight against if we are to have a truly good and worthy life.
This Buddhist view is perhaps the biggest reason I don’t identify as a Buddhist. My belief in the value of zest is a more general version of my belief in marriage: the pleasures of this world are, in many respects, good. At the same time, there is a great deal to the Buddhist critique. Buddhist patient endurance (k??nti) is, I think, as important a virtue as zest: there always will be bad things happening to us, and we must be ready to deal with them with equanimity and small-s stoicism. Buddhist practice does a very good job of cultivating this virtue.
In the end, I guess I’m agreeing with Aristotle that there’s a virtuous mean here, but a different one than he describes. Moderation, temperance, is its own kind of virtue, given that health is a good. But it is a virtue with respect to health, not to pleasure and pain. With respect to pleasure and pain, true virtue lies in a combination of patient endurance and zest. A lack of patient endurance is one vicious extreme, the extreme one might see in a child bitterly wailing over a dropped ice cream cone; a lack of zest is the other, the extreme one might see in a monk as in a cynic or a jaded hipster aesthete.